News & Media

Background on Wye River community volunteers

By: Leith Hillard

Category: Community Safety

  2.27 PM 4 January, 2016

Location: General

Views: 2366

The following story, written in 2012, gives detailed background on the community volunteers of Wye River. 

The 2011 RACV Insurance Award for Excellence was awarded to the Wye River community volunteers.

This homegrown initiative confronts head-on the worst-case scenario of an emergency hitting a community of 100 people but some 5,000 visitors in peak season; a township perched on the Great Ocean Road a long way from support.

They gave their particular challenge a positive spin. “The problem and the solution came together,” explains the project plan. “A massive number of people to look after, yet these people all have skills which we can utilise.”

Peter Mitchell from the brigade’s management team explains. “Within that 5,000 you might have doctors, nurses, farmers, teachers, people who can organise or comfort or who are hands-on. You might have childcare workers and vets. Wouldn’t it be good to have those people on a roster?

“We have a lot of long-time campers here who feel very connected to this community and if there was an emergency they would say, ‘How can we help?’ It’s not unrealistic to say that there would be a good proportion of helpers and doers.”

There’s a daily ritual in WyeRiver that proves the point. The three o’clock swim attracts 20 to 30 people every day but underneath their bathers − so to speak − Peter realised he was regularly swimming with three doctors and a police media liaison officer. But how to harness the hidden skills of swimmers, campers and grey nomads? Where to start?

Peter continues. “After Black Saturday, our surf lifesaving captain said, ‘If we had a situation like Kinglake, surely we’d be able to help.’ I think it was the same for volunteers in all organisations. Thoughts turned to how they might help if the same thing happened to their community.”

The local CFA and Surf Lifesaving volunteers put their heads together and looked towards the coast.

“We looked at the Surf Lifesaving Club,” says Peter. “It has a disability ramp, a kitchen, toilets, a first aid room and 40 trained first aid personnel on its books. It’s on a concrete block. There are fences where we could take care of dogs. That was the place to shepherd people to if there was a bushfire. We were on the way.”

This is how the plan unfolds. An emergency is called in. A text message goes out to 32 pre-registered volunteers − the core of the community volunteers. Those who present themselves will be assigned to roles such as white board recorder or recruiting, tasking, communications, equipment or surf club supervisor.

WyeRiver Fire Brigade Captain Roy Moriarty or an incident controller would trigger a call for volunteers from the crowd. The industrious community has received grants and raised funds to buy recruiting tents and signage, sunhats, torches and tabards marked with assigned roles. How appropriate that ten two-way radios have also been purchased with the money won from the Fire Awareness Award! All this equipment is stored in the recently-built extra bay at the fire station, funded by money raised at the brigade’s biannual fetes.

Peter explains the recruitment process. “We want to exercise due diligence and not task people above their experience. People would approach us and first things first: do they have medical issues; how can we contact them. Our recruiting supervisor gets their details. The tasking supervisor allocates the tasks and these are recorded on the whiteboard. Their names are given to the equipment supervisor who gives them their tabards, water, radios and so on.

“We’ve developed a management structure so we know how and where we’ll utilise these people. The best management plans are the simplest. The heart of the project is coordinating community participation.

“We keep everyone away from the fire station where the incident is being run and hand people over to the surf lifesaving club. That’s what they do; they look after people. This isn’t a day at the beach anymore. Help your CFA to monitor the fire or emergency by freeing them up from people management. The community volunteer coordinator talks to the CFA captain and the captain talks to the region.

“If the communications in town are down, we have so many cyclists who will deliver messages.

It’s an award-winning idea that could be a model for other popular tourist towns.

“We need to be responsible for ourselves,” says Peter. “Black Saturday showed us that. I think it forced a lot of communities to look at the hard facts of their risk. The Whittlesea captain who spoke to Karen Kissane for her book Worst of Days said something like, ‘I don’t expect any outside help so, if it doesn’t come, I’m not disappointed.’ Neil Comrie said communities have to understand that they may be on their own for three or four days.

“The Great Ocean Road is the last place you want to be in a bushfire but [ex-Anglesea captain] Billy Bubb said something to me when we were on a strike team at Kinglake that really struck a chord: ‘We’re so lucky to have 180 degrees where we know the fire isn’t coming from’. Of course that’s true. It helped free up my thinking. Now we’ve worked the problem as a group of volunteers and come up with a solid plan that’s backed up by equipment and supplies.”

WyeRiver has approximately 20 incidents a year “so turning out is a novelty,” says Peter. “We don’t have any trouble getting members. It’s a small community that values its CFA. Every person in the brigade has a role so people have ownership of the brigade.”

Last Updated: 06 January 2016